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Anasazi and Cannibalism

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                The ancient Anasazi population of the American southwest are believed to be the ancestors of modern Pueblo Native Americans. Located primarily in the region commonly known as the “four corners” where Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico conjoin, the Anasazi population has been dated as originating in A.D. 100 (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2007). Through the study of archaeological findings in the area such as housing complexes and straight roads carved through the desert landscape, the Anasazi culture has come to be recognized as sophisticated and well organized (Fink, 2007). Other archaeological findings, however, insinuate another, more gruesome reality of the Anasazi: cannibalism. The evidence supporting this conclusion is, by nature, unsettling but the information is included by necessity.

                The first evidence of cannibalism against or among the Anasazi was supported by the interpretation of bone damage observed by Christy Turner and Tim D. White, who studied over 10 mass burial sites in the American southwest attributed to pre-Pueblo (Anasazi) natives. According the Julie Cart of the LA Times, Turner was,

     …sifting through a box of human remains in 1967 taken from Polacca Wash, on what is now the Hopi Indian Reservation in northeast Arizona, when something struck him as odd. He thought they resembled the remains of a meal. (Cart, 1999)

    After examining the skeletal remains located in the Anasazi area, Turner compared bone markings of those remains with the skeletal remains of established cases of cannibalism. The results led Turner to develop a list of the archaeological characteristics typically indicative of cannibalism. One particular observation made of these burial sites was that there were generally little to no vertebral fossils and other “spongy” bones among the other scattered remains. A theory proposed by Turner speculates that, due to the amount of consumable marrow in the vertebrae and other spongy bones, a lack of fossils indicates that these bones was destroyed in an effort to extract the valuable marrow (Fink, 2007). Of the surviving vertebrae, most of the columns bore “greenstick” fractures which are distinctive breaks that allow for the extraction of marrow (Connors-Millard, 2003).

                Distinctive burn marks on the back or top of the skull, but never on the face, indicate that the brain was essentially roasted inside the skull. If the head was to be positioned opposite, with the face toward the flame, the brain would have burned entirely. Examination of the interior of the skull supports this conclusion since there is no indication of burning inside the skull. The brain is a good source of calories as well as protein and would explain the motivation behind its consumption.

                   Further evidence of this theory is the existence of shattered skulls bearing anvil abrasions. The nature of the breaks in the skull fragments themselves indicates that the breaks occurred at or very near the time of death since they are very sharp fractures. An aged skull is dryer and will not result in a clean break when struck. The presence of anvil abrasions indicates that the skull was broken in order to expose the cooked brain. Anvil marks are caused when the skull is positioned atop an anvil stone and struck with a hammer stone. The marks are created when the strike causes the skull to grind against the stone , resulting in a series of parallel grooves. Anvil abrasions, according to Turner, can only occur in the absence of tissue covering the skull. Therefore, the tissue would have been necessarily removed, either by scalping or burning (Fink, 2007).

                Other bones throughout the skeleton often bore small cuts, typically in a “V” shape. These were caused by sharp stone tools created specifically to slice tendons and tissue away off the bone. These “V” shaped markings were also found in animal remains and supports the theory that the cannibals implemented similar methods of dissecting hunted game and humans.  Often, the long bones of the arms and legs were found shattered among other intact bones. The reasoning behind this is similar to the explanation of missing vertebrae: bone marrow. Bone marrow was a major source of fat for the diets of the regional population. The length of the bones, when broken, are congruent with the length of broken animal bones. The explanation for this is, according to Turner, due to the fact that this is the exact length of bone that would fit in a standard Anasazi cooking pot.

                This interpretation of the evidence is also aligned with another element commonly found throughout archaeological remnants in the Southwest. The existence of “pot polish” on the ends of fractured bones suggests that the human bones were included in stews or soups cooked in large ceramic pots, just like animal bones. “Bones that have been cooked in a clay pot show a faint beveling and polishing at the tips from scraping against the coarse interior of the pot” (Fink, 2007). In addition, analyses conducted by Turner indicates a pattern of “cutting, breaking, burning and gnawing of bones” that is consistent with the theory of cannibalism (White, 1992).

                Proponents of the Anasazi cannibalism theory were generally criticized for providing, what skeptics called “circumstantial” evidence supporting their hypothesis. This was the case for Turner until 2000, when research conducted by biochemist Richard Marlar and his colleagues published evidence that show, “consumption of human flesh did occur, as demonstrated in preserved human waste containing identifiable human tissue” (Cooke, 2000). The study was conducted upon the discovery of a human coprolite located on the Ute Reservation in Colorado. A “coprolite” is the fossilized remains of fecal matter and is often analyzed to uncover information relevant to the diet of the animal that deposited it. The coprolite found on the Ute Reservation was found to contain human myoglobin but did not contain features of canine feces such as hair or bone fragments. Myoglobin is a protein that transfers oxygen from the bloodstream to the muscle cells. The same coprolite failed to produce myoglobin residue from game animals such as deer or rabbit.

    Further evidence unearthed at the same site include cutting tools and at least one cooking pot that contained remnants of human myoglobin. However, according to follow up research on the existence of human myoglobin on items found at the site concluded that, “further tests failed to find human myoglobin in storage vessels at Cowboy Wash or in cooking pots from several Anasazi sites occupied before A.D. 1150” (Bower, 2000).

                Amid the growing body of evidence supporting cannibalism in or upon the ancient Anasazi population, many contend that the instances of cannibalism are not a product of Anasazi culture itself, but rather resulted from an external invading force of attackers who murdered and cannibalized the Anasazi people. Another situation, supported by archaeologist J. Andrew Darling, suggests that ancient Native American witches were responsible for the acts of cannibalism, stating that consumption of human flesh was often, “an initiation into witchhood” (Witze, 2001).

    Most of the debate on the subject of Anasazi cannibalism seems to center around the modern conception of cannibalism leading to a culturally subjective approach to the issue. Many modern Pueblo Natives take offense to the suggestion that their ancestors took part in cannibalistic activities, noting that historical Pueblo opinion on cannibalism mirrors modern disgust and disapproval, and therefore dismiss the notion. There is a considerable body of evidence, including vast examples of cut marks, burned skeletal remains, particularly on the skull and the observation of “pot polish” on bone fragments that suggests cannibalism. This evidence, along with the discovery and biochemical study of the human coprolite further the theory and provide sound scientific supporting data. Despite individual opinions on the issue of cannibalism, the biological and archaeological evidence supports the theory that the Anasazi population was exposed to cannibalism circa A.D. 1150., but whether this was manifested from within the Anasazi society or conducted upon them from an external force remains to be concluded.


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    Press, Princeton. 1992.

    Witze, Alexandra (2001, June, 01). Researchers Divided Over Whether Anasazi Were Cannibals.

    National Geographic News, Retrieved Apr 17, 2007, from

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